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The Making of a Global Economic Player? An Appraisal of South Korea's Role in Myanmar
Author: Matteo Fumagalli
Region: Asia
Theme: Economics
Published February 15, 2017
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Suddenly and unexpectedly, after several decades as Asia’s backwater and basket case of international development, Myanmar was thrust to the center stage of international attention in 2011. The country’s political opening has paved the way for greater engagement by international players, old and new. South Korea and the United States are no exception, with Korea doubling its development assistance, trade, and investment in the country in less than five years. Myanmar serves as an excellent vantage point to observe Korea’s evolving role in international affairs, especially in terms of its Asian engagement. Pragmatism drives the relationship, with Nay Pyi Taw trying to diversify its foreign policy and attract more investment, while Seoul seeks to expand foreign economic relations, extend the domestic market, and secure access to new resources. The paper’s main contention is that while striving to articulate a distinctive regional and global role for itself which goes beyond the usual ‘aid-trade-investment’ triad, turning economic relationships into political ones has proven difficult, and thus, Seoul remains more of a ‘payer’ than a ‘player.’ Economic cooperation with Myanmar has widened and deepened, but South Korea’s political leadership has not been able to build on this momentum. Tackling this issue is important at a time when Korea needs to remind the new U.S. administration, which sees Seoul primarily through the prism of the North Korean nuclear issue and the tensions with China, of its strategic relevance. Myanmar offers South Korea the opportunity to enhance its international role beyond the immediate neighborhood.

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